I’ve never been a Deadhead, but I’ve always liked the idea of the Grateful Dead. A constantly evolving entity whose home is on the live stage, the Dead represent the ideal of a rock concert as an experience. No two shows in sequence were alike, each new encounter with them like a reintroduction, and yet it’s also something that for millions of people feels like home. People have traded tapes of their live recordings since early on in their career, and even long after the passing of bandleader Jerry Garcia, that tradition lives on through the ongoing releases of the Dave’s Picks concert series, which helped them cross a significant milestone of having more top 40 albums than any other American band—most of them being posthumous live releases. There’s a certain romance about all of it, even something surprising and continuously thrilling even. It’s just that, well, I never developed much of an appreciation for their music. (That’s not a statement I make with judgment or resignation. It just is.)
Sonic Youth, a band I’ve loved since I was a teenager, is perhaps not the most likely parallel to the Dead in terms of sheer aesthetic—even if both bands were frequent proponents of improvisational freakouts—and crossing the punk-hippie divide is treacherous business. (Sonic Youth aren’t particularly fond of the term “jamming,” for that matter.) But parallels emerge the closer you look between these two groups who made their name on legendary and constantly evolving live performances, particularly since the launch of Sonic Youth’s continuously growing live archive. Maintained and curated by Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo, the latter an avowed Deadhead who grew up trading live tapes himself, the group’s Bandcamp live archive began to grow from a handful of live shows uploaded in 2018 to more than 30 in 2024, many of them sourced from fan recordings made for free with the band’s consent, with one important caveat: The band gets a copy.
It takes only a few such live recordings to understand why an entire archive of Sonic Youth live recordings is appealing, even necessary. Take their 2004 recording at the Orange Peel in North Carolina, which finds Kim Gordon at her coolest, vamping to the crowd during “Kool Thing” and clowning on Eminem and Justin Timberlake, and the band’s 26-minute explosion and fallout of “Expressway to Yr Skull.” (Arguably their “Dark Star,” though one could possibly say the same of “The Diamond Sea.”) Or perhaps their 1990 Irvine show, which features an even faster and more fiery take on “Kool Thing” and a mesmerizing and locked-in “Dirty Boots.” Not every recording is pristine, not every performance is perfect, but in exploring the archive, we’re essentially hearing the life, growth and evolution of a band as it happened, or perhaps from another angle, countless different permutations and iterations of that band that are never quite the same from one tape to the next.
Walls Have Ears at one time seemed the least likely addition to the Sonic Youth archive. Or it least it would have been until they went and made it official. Released in both digital and physical formats via their own Goofin’ imprint, the release of Walls Have Ears, after nearly 40 years, legitimizes a release that long haunted the band. Originally a bootleg released in 1986 by former Blast First label head Paul Smith without the band’s consent, Walls Have Ears became an immediate source of conflict between the two parties. “Our creative control was put on the spot by this guy. We were kinda livid,” said Thurston Moore in Goodbye 20th Century, David Browne’s biography of the band.
Walls Have Ears is also pretty weird as far as live albums go. It’s not a single live show but a composite of three different performances—seven tracks recorded in October of 1985 in London, nine recorded in April in London, and just one, curiously, in Brighton that same year. The sound’s not perfect, Thurston Moore occasionally complains about feedback in the monitors, and there’s a bit of a sense of whiplash from the jump from London to Brighton to London again with a shift in fidelity to go with it. It’s understandable, given the chaotic presentation, that the band might have had reservations about putting their stamp of approval on the album. But their performances—raw, feral, electric and intense—are arguably even more important to the Walls Have Ears legend than the dubious circumstances under which it was released.
It’s best to view Walls Have Ears as two shows with an intermission in between. Captured during a round of touring between 1985’s Bad Moon Rising and 1986’s EVOL, it finds the band in a state of transition. Where the April set features some of the last performances from Bob Bert on drums, the October set features Steve Shelley, who remained with the band up through their dissolution in 2011. The differences are significant, particularly given the ferocity with which Shelley bashes out “Death Valley ’69,” though it’s Moore whose performance is the greatest variable, his repetitions of “I had to hit it!” more deranged in the October show (which, just to add to the strange logic of it all, is presented first). Kim Gordon takes on an even more menacing presence on “Brother James,” screeching and sneering with a throat full of brimstone. The show likewise features a particularly tense and psychedelic version of “Expressway to Yr Skull,” which the group had been shaping on tour since July of that year, its studio release still seven months off. But some of the biggest surprises arise in the least expected places, as on Bad Moon Rising standout “I Love Her (All the Time)”, which is presented less as no wave drone and more of a swinging, swaggering post-punk samba.
The bridge between the two sets is “Blood on Brighton Beach” a.k.a. Confusion Is Sex‘s “Making the Nature Scene,” which comprises some of the nastiest noise rock they ever coughed up, all distortion and compromised sound. It’s an absolute sludgy mess, and gloriously so, a weaponized version of Sonic Youth in their gnarliest form.
With the April set, several songs reappear in slightly different form, like “Death Valley ’69,” “Kill Yr Idols” and “Brother James.” One track is dedicated to a sped-up tape recording of a Jesus and Mary Chain song (as opposed to Madonna at regular speed in the October sequence), and the group feels a little looser overall. But there are exceptions; the mutant disco of “Burning Spear” takes on an even more fucked-up quality here, simultaneously more antagonistic and more accessible at once, a piercing example of the kind of thrilling transformation these songs could undergo at any given moment.
I saw Sonic Youth three times during the back half of their 30-year run and can attest to their fluidity and mutability as a live act. At a Del Mar Fairgrounds show in 2002 where Moore briefly misidentified the venue as being in “Orange County,” the group in one or two moments even explored extended jams on highlights like “Rain on Tin,” juxtaposed against pricklier numbers like “Drunken Butterfly.” At the House of Blues San Diego in 2005, they incorporated lo-fi tape recorder interludes much like Walls Have Ears‘ Madonna and JAMC cameos—the one that stands out in my memory is Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime.” And all three featured at least one standout from their 1988 masterpiece Daydream Nation (including “Eric’s Trip,” a personal favorite).
Yet none of those shows quite had the same highly charged atmosphere or intensity that you hear on Walls Have Ears, recorded by an admittedly younger version of the band still shaping both sound and identity. Played in reverse order, you essentially hear a good band becoming a great one. It might have began as a source of consternation, but the release of Walls Have Ears feels like a gift—the chance to hear and discover something previously unexplored from a band who left the stage over a decade ago.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.